SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Dustin Johnson was making the short stroll from the 10th green to the 11th tee at Whistling Straits when the galleries on either side of the narrow path began roaring: “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
Eyes straight ahead, impassive as ever, Johnson deserved the chants but barely acknowledged them. Somewhere deep down, though, he had to be smiling. This is what people mean when they say revenge is best served cold.
On the very same course where 11 years earlier Johnson lost a shot at his first major championship, he won all five of the matches he played and led a young U.S. Ryder Cup team to its most lopsided victory ever over Europe. That the oldest player on the squad also turned out to be the best made it that little bit sweeter.
Yet even after he'd put away Paul Casey, his Sunday singles opponent, 1 up, Johnson had a characteristically low-key celebration. A tip of his cap, a few claps on the backs of teammates and a long kiss from partner Paulina Gretzky.
“I felt like the game was coming together,” said Johnson, 37. He could have said it was a long, sometimes-discouraging slog for someone who held onto his No. 2 world ranking despite not playing championship-caliber golf since winning the 2020 Masters. Instead, Johnson kept trying to deflect the credit.
He praised U.S. captain Steve Stricker, then Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffle, his 20-something playing partners in the foursome and fourball matches. One half-expected Johnson to add the course superintendent, greenskeepers, cleaning crews and wait staff in the U.S. team room before he was done. He didn't mention his own role in all that winning until he'd run out of contributors to thank.
“I did not expect 5-0-0, that’s for sure,” he said, “but I didn’t really expect to play five matches.”
Casey wasn't entirely convinced.
“Classic Dustin,” is how the Englishman described their match. “He played great golf. Disappointed I didn't make that putt (at the 17th) to tie that match, but I know he wanted 5-0 for the week.”
The last U.S. Ryder Cup player to turn the trick was Larry Nelson in 1979. Golfers rarely dwell on the past; even the best hit enough bad shots to break the stoutest heart. For the same reason, perhaps, Johnson never mentioned the 2010 PGA Championship at this very course, where he was in contention on the 18th hole of the final day and hit his tee shot into a bunker well right of the 18th fairway.
The patch of sand was on the wrong side of the gallery rope, pockmarked with footprints where fans had walked all week. The grassy edge that usually demarcates the outline of a bunker was so trampled down Johnson assumed it was a footpath. A backpack was sitting in it even as he played the shot.
Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty instead of making the playoff. As word of the ruling filtered down to fans ringing the green, they began chanting “Let him play!” and “Nonsense!”
Johnson took his medicine admirably that afternoon.
“I just thought it was on a piece of dirt the crowd had trampled down. Never thought it was a sand trap. I looked at it a lot. Never once thought it was a bunker,” he said, then paused.
“I guess," he said, "I should have looked at the rules sheet a little harder.”
Stricker knew Johnson's history at Whistling Straits and knew, too, that whatever lessons he carried from the 2010 championship would make him a stronger player this time around. His teammates knew it, too, and after following his lead through three days, they couldn't help but have some fun with the idea that the course owed him something.
“I think DJ is our emotional leader. Poor guy went out there and tried to get six points," Justin Thomas said before breaking into a wide grin, “and all he could get was five.”
More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports